We are now in an era, for both books and television, where the activities of real people have the popularity of fiction. Audiences want their entertainment to be authentic and that means increasingly disregarding invented tales for something they consider genuine, even if it is bizarre and unlikely to be approved by a conventional editor. But what happens when the two are blurred with a fictitious story about a real person?
The long list of Jack the Ripper suspects contains some who were completely fictious and others who are only suspected because of a story that wrongly links them to the crime. The most famous such story is that of the Royal Conspiracy which begins with Prince Albert Victor, Queen Victoria’s grandson, marrying and having a child with a Catholic. Various officials, all masons, conspire to kill and mutilate prostitutes to keep this secret. The source of the story, Joseph Sickert denounced it as a fib, but people still believe it.
When Prince Albert Victor was first linked to the murders, despite an irrefutable alibi, his biographer sought another suspect close to him who fitted the criteria. This suspect, J.K. Stephen then featured in other books that saw him become part of different conspiracies. The last of these was published in 1992 but today, despite the absolute lack of evidence, he has been accused again.
If we stopped inventing stories about historical characters and told their real history instead, we might find people willing to read it.
Paul Williams is a writer of fiction and non-fiction best known for his Jack the Ripper Suspects: The Definitive Guide and Encyclopedia.